The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Joe Biden had to work with segregationists

It was necessary in the 1970s

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and former vice president Joe Biden speak on either side of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

At Thursday’s Democratic debate, former vice president Joe Biden came under even more fire for bragging about his ability to work with southern segregationists during his early years in the Senate. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the only African American candidate on the stage with Biden, attacked him in searingly personal terms, explaining, “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

But such criticism is unfair. Biden was far from the only progressive Democrat to have worked with former segregationists in the era to which he referred. They had to. Many of these segregationist senators maintained political power well into the 1980s, holding important positions, including chairmanships, on key committees with the support of their colleagues and the majority of the voters in their states.

The most prominent progressive Democrat to embrace the segregationists was Jimmy Carter. He accepted their endorsements and used them as surrogates on the campaign trail. In fact, Carter made the most powerful symbols of segregation — Gov. George Wallace (D-Ala.), Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) and Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) — a central element of his strategy to reclaim the South in his bids for the White House in 1976 and 1980. His use of these figures demonstrates their importance to securing the support of working-class white voters across the South, a region critical to any Democrat’s hopes of gaining the White House.

Mississippi, now so solidly red that Democratic presidential candidates have little to entice them to the state, was a crucial battleground in the 1976 presidential race. In an internal memorandum titled “Mississippi State Overview,” the Carter campaign recognized its best chance for victory depended on securing the allegiance of “a coalition of rural poor whites in northeast Mississippi and Blacks” that would overcome President Gerald R. Ford’s reliance on “urban and upwardly mobile whites in southern Mississippi and Jackson.” Throughout the campaign, and again in his 1980 reelection race, Carter walked a tight rope, trying to appeal to former Wallace voters in the northeast part of the state without alienating African Americans.

Even the media understood the tenuousness of the sort of coalition Carter was trying to fuse. When Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s campaign director, went on “Meet the Press,” he confronted questions about how his campaign would hold “many George Wallace supporters” and “the majority of blacks, people who normally vote against each other” together through the general election in 1976.

A crucial element of Carter’s plan for holding this coalition together in Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South, involved relying on the political titans in those states. While these segregationists had signed the infamous Southern Manifesto against integrated schools in 1956 and battled fiercely against civil rights, Carter needed them as surrogates to appeal to working-class whites. In appealing to white rural voters, Carter “brought to the task two heavyweights Ford couldn’t match: Jim Eastland and George Wallace.” according to “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006.” Carter kicked off the general election campaign in Mississippi with Eastland and Stennis by his side. Despite their differences with Carter on civil rights, Carter had no apparent qualms campaigning with them and using them as surrogates.

The campaign faced scrutiny over this tactic. The morning after the event in Mississippi, the New York Times wrote that “Jimmy Carter, an avowed champion of civil rights, went looking for Southern support here today, arm in arm with two of the country’s most prominent segregationists.” For his part, Carter exclaimed “it is a great honor for me to be campaigning” with Eastland and Stennis, describing the two as “statesmen” and “leaders” who were “committed to absolute integrity.”

When a reporter insisted the senators seemed “to represent the antithesis of [Carter’s] view that the civil rights acts of the 1960s were beneficial to the South” Carter outright rejected the notion, saying: “I doubt that that’s correct.” Stennis insisted, however, that he “never voted for a civil rights bill,” to which Eastland added, “Neither did I.”

Perhaps the most powerful Southern surrogate for the Carter campaign in 1976 was Wallace, the public face of segregationist resistance in the 1960s. The governor had endorsed Carter at the Democratic National Convention and joined the nominee on the rostrum following Carter’s acceptance speech. Wallace also played a significant role in securing support for Carter in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle during the general election.

Without these three states’ 33 electoral votes, Carter would have lost. Years later, Carter’s regional campaign manager James Free concluded: “We owe [Wallace] a lot.”

Which brings us back to Biden. His history is not one of supporting the segregationist cause, or anything close to it. He rightly touts legislative successes in the area of civil rights as major achievements in his career. As such, he shouldn’t be tarred by Eastland’s segregationist stances because of a comment or some legislation he worked on 40 years ago — just as President Carter shouldn’t.

Working with people you disagree with to enact policy that you believe will improve the country isn’t a negative. In fact, this type of bipartisanship (and cross-ideological engagement regardless of party labels) should be encouraged. Biden is right that we need more civility — and the ability to talk across ideological and partisan gulfs — in our politics.

Moreover, what the Carter example illustrates is that men like Eastland and Stennis were still powerful figures when Biden joined the Senate in 1973. Without the support of the South, secured in part thanks to endorsements from the likes of Wallace, Eastland and Stennis, Carter would have lost the 1976 presidential election. Similarly, thanks to their accrued seniority, these men and their allies had real power over what bills became law. Stennis served in the Senate until 1989, and Biden’s longtime Republican counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), infamous for his filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act, served until 2003.

Where Biden erred is in believing such examples of working across ideological lines would be greeted positively today, when all of this historical context has been lost. Such a move is political malpractice. Biden’s long history of working across the partisan divide in an attempt to find solutions to Americans’ problems is a strength. He should be proud of it.

Condemning him for working with the likes of Eastland would be profoundly ahistoric. After all, every senator in the 1970s and 1980s did this sort of thing. It was the only way to get anything done in Congress at the time. But Biden needs to be more politically aware on the campaign trail as to how times have changed, and leave history to the historians.